Blades in the Dark Campaign Retrospective Part 2: Campaign and System ReflectionGame Summary ·
Bones - composed one of the campaign’s players
In this post I’ll summarize my thoughts on running a 29-session Blades in the Dark campaign. See the previous post for a campaign summary.
I’m super happy with this campaign. I think the characters and narrative that emerged were excellent. Though, to be fair, it’s one of the few longer campaigns I’ve actually finished properly.
Compared to D&D I had to do very little prep. I’d roll to advance a few faction clocks of interest between sessions and jot down some ideas for potential scores. I’d reread my notes from the last session and try to hone in on things players said or expressed interest in. During the session itself we eventually established a schedule something like this:
- 30 minutes of warm-up chat
- 30 minutes of downtime
- 20 minutes of free play, gathering information, and choosing (not planning!) a score
- A 10-minute break where I would quickly jot down some ideas for the score:
- Locations or routes
- 60-90 minutes for the score
- 30 minutes for payoff, entanglements, and session XP
I really liked how the sessions developed an established rhythm. Sometimes we’d break it and do a longer score or free play section, but for the most part, this predictable format made it easy for me to keep us on time and pack a lot of fun into the session.
The players in this campaign were great, thoroughly engaging with their characters and the world and keeping me on my toes. I was constantly impressed with their solutions to faction conflicts and score situations. I love how Blades rewards creativity and lets all sorts of wild things happen during scores, but doesn’t bog you down with planning or math.
I think I might have gone slightly overboard with the number of NPCs and factions in play at a given time. That definitely felt like it could be overwhelming for the players. I actually think this was easier when we played on Roll20; having handouts and a nice annotated Duskvol map page and score page let me lay out all the relevant information right in front of players. They could also independently review NPC or faction information while we did other things. Once we switched to in-person, I used lots of index cards and printed out the city map, but I actually found we had less space and players were less likely to consult the cards compared to the information in Roll20.
Deciding to not retire the first generation of characters but keep them in the mix while introducing a new generation worked pretty well. Playing as kids introduced some challenges around violence and tone, but we enjoyed the juxtaposition and ability to interject some fun themes about childhood, growing up, and being a moody teen. That said, it would probably be better to let characters choose to retire or “trauma out” to put a more definitive end to their story. That way, if your campaign fizzles out, at least some of the characters get closure. We were lucky to play a long enough campaign that we ended their stories all at once, right at the end. But, there were aspects of the original characters I was curious about that we never got to explore. Why exactly did Vey have to leave Iruvia? What past trauma (“the accident”) haunted Weaver?
As has been my experience with other TTRPGs, I find it interesting how the table can switch between a serious and goofy tone very quickly. Our game (and all my games to date excluding conventions) absolutely tended towards goofiness. While Blades presents itself as a dark gothic ghostpunk game and D&D plays into heroic high fantasy and sword and sorcery genre tropes, both also very easily can play out as comedies. Our journals are littered with one-liners and jokes, some still funny, some whose meaning is lost to time.
- 🎵 Con-tibia yourself - at home 🎵
- Lads, Lads, Lads
- Oliver Twist ya neck off
I’m interested in what a more serious tone in a game of Blades might look like. Our campaign certainly had its serious moments, but I think sustaining those can be difficult. It is probably a combination of group dynamics and buy-in that determines how serious a tone a TTRPG can strike. I think I will try to steer my next game in a more serious direction and see how it goes, whether it’s Blades or not. I’d definitely run Blades again, but I have a lot of other games I want to run as well.
Overall, I really like the Blades system. It takes a lot of the fiction-first mechanics of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games (it started as one) and adds mechanics that fit the heist and crime drama genre. The combined effect of these mechanics is that Blades feels more “crunchy” than many PbtA games, with lots of levers for players to pull to try to improve their character and gang. But all of those mechanics feel very well connected to the fiction and rarely get complicated in the way you might see when, e.g., resolving a grapple in Pathfinder 1E or casting a higher-level spell in D&D.
Some of the most successful mechanics I think it adds are:
Position and Effect
Instead of having to build the consequences of action into moves, Blades uses position (controlled, risky, desperate) to signal to the player the danger level of their chosen approach. They can accept the risk or try a different Action that might be less risky.
Separating position from effect lets the GM be very clear about the potential risks and rewards of every role. I am reminded of the Intent and Task from Burning Wheel. Although the position and effect discussion can slow the game down a bit (see below), I think it ultimately creates greater buy-in compared to just a roll without a discussion first.
Combined, these create a very flexible system for escalating stakes, setting difficulty, communicating risks, creating a back-and-forth between the player and the GM, and encouraging players to pull various levers (Push Yourself, Devil’s Bargain, items, trade position for effect, seek Desperate actions to get XP, etc.) to improve their chances of success.
Factions and Clocks
Factions in Blades work like Threats or Fronts from Apocalypse World , but I find them a bit more structured and reflecting of the provided setting of Blades . Adding in faction statuses to reflect their relationship to the gang really helps make the world feel alive and simply visualizes the state of faction play. The fact that they are gang-to-gang relationships also helps solidify the feeling of the crew as a single unit, compared to Apocalypse World, which is totally fine with players being at odds.
I like how these tools make GM prep super simple. Advance the clocks, see what happens, and come up with some hooks for the players based on the changed scenario. The provided faction boxes near the end of the book are packed with ideas to create one-off scores or entire campaigns of conflict between ideologically-opposed factions.
It can be really fun to brainstorm and plan how to approach a problem in a tactical or player problem-solving-focused RPG. I’ve spent many hours planning an assault on a dungeon or a heist in D&D. But there are a few patterns you start to notice after doing that a few times:
- Players rarely agree.
- Some players don’t find the planning very fun.
- The plan almost always immediately falls apart.
While it’s fun to consider a problem and come up with potential solutions, because of how little players know about a situation and the randomization inherent to most RPGs, planning is very likely to lead to a lot of out-of-character debating that in the end is mostly meaningless. A lot of the received wisdom ofsees this kind of debate as part of the game. But players rarely actually use any game mechanics as part of this problem-solving. It’s player creativity, not player character creativity, that most groups use to guide planning. There’s nothing wrong with that culture of play, exactly; I’ve enjoyed it myself. But I’d much rather play a game where players draw on the mechanics directly to make decisions, solve problems, and have debates. Otherwise, we could host a debate club or do logic puzzles together instead of playing RPGs.
Blades addresses the problem of planning brilliantly through flashbacks. They simultaneously do a few things:
- Reduce or remove unnecessary planning.
- Allow for player creativity.
- Perfectly fit the heist genre trope of, “Ah, but I had considered this beforehand,” and make it easy to do smash cut heist montages as you would see in Oceans 11.
- Allow for certain kinds of characters that would not work in a moment-to-moment, present tense only kind of game. For example, we had a guest player for a few sessions named Spinx, who used the Spider playbook. Because the Spider excels at using their network to manipulate a situation, gather information, and spread rumors, Spinx rarely had to actually be present during a score. They could best help the gang by doing all the social manipulation ahead of time to set them up for success through flashbacks.
After 29 sessions, we definitely found a few challenges with the Blades system. Like PbtA games, Blades does require a degree of judgment from the GM.* I think most of these issues can be addressed with existing rules, but require the GM to make some decisions. So consider this advice for future Blades GMs who are likely to run into the same problems.
Discussing Position and Effect
I definitely found that new Blades players coming from D&D just want to roll dice. They don’t want to chat about position and effect first; rolling is fun! I found some players kind of stayed in this mindset, while others got over it and remembered position and effect. Obviously using Desperate rolls as an XP trigger was an excellent way to make the player care about it. But I found I just had to continually interject to make sure we were clear on this before rolling. I imagine this would vary by group, but in my group, I found it a bit frustrating at times to make sure the discussion happened.
As a GM, remembering the consequences for different positions was weirdly hard. I used a cheat sheet every time. But, that’s not a big deal; I do the same thing with PbtA games to remind me of my options and force me to not do the same consequence over and over again (dealing harm, I’m looking at you).
Like most PbtA games I’ve played, there is an “unavoidable death spiral/chaos” effect in Blades . The prevalence of rolling a partial success (four or five) means that a lot of the time, consequences will build into an inevitable-feeling shitstorm. I recall very specifically when one of my more “min-max”-type players felt disappointed that PbtA games don’t reward player creativity as much as D&D because all rolls have a good chance of adding to the chaos with a mixed result. Obviously, this is a specific design choice and creates some very fun chaos, but it is something that some players don’t enjoy.
That said, I did find that compared to PbtA games, player and character skill in Blades makes this effect less dramatic and the players have more control over the level of risk. I haven’t run the numbers, but I’m pretty sure the dice pools in Blades , particularly as characters advance, are less skewed towards partial success than the traditional PbtA 2d6 dice system.
I found the players a bit overpowered by the end, but maybe I could have used the tools a bit more or pushed a bit harder. Once players had two or three dice in their resistance dice pools, they often only took a few stress or none at all for a failed roll. Though to be fair, they designed a character that wasn’t super skilled at anything in particular, but was able to avoid consequences. By the end some of the characters were very rarely taking much stress or harm due to successful resistance, making it harder to wear them down.
This campaign did solidify my opinion that the game is balanced for a maximum of four players plus a GM. Having five or more players dramatically skews the stress and harm economy to make the game much easier for the players. As a GM, I’d avoid running for more than four. If you choose to, I think the main options you have are:
- Require more rolls to complete a score. This might mean scores take a bit longer.
- Ensure the gang is always also up against lots of opponents. Hit them with bigger groups of opponents to take advantage of the size quality increase.
- Make use of the “resistance before acting” rule I discuss further below.
- Consider starting the gang off in a worse position than the default starting scenario. Have them be vassals to a higher-tier gang or stuck in a conflict between higher-tier opponents.
- Maybe (you’d have to look at the numbers) hack the resistance roll rules to have players take stress equal to their highest result plus one or two. Or maybe their pool is their attribute rating minus one?
- Maybe (again, numbers) hack the stress tracker to reduce maximum stress before trauma by one or two boxes. That would probably be simpler than changing the resistance rules.
Resistance Before Acting
Speaking of pushing players harder: there is an interesting mechanic in Blades where you can force players to roll resistance out of the blue, i.e., not following an Action roll. The book suggests doing this to reflect an opponent taking the initiative or before acting against a higher-tier opponent.
However, this mechanic felt a bit like cheating to me as the GM. When player turn order is not fixed but managed by the GM and the fiction, I don’t mind jumping around and keeping a rough initiative order so everyone gets a turn. Disrupting that by my own fiat to call for resistance felt unfair, so I didn’t use it very often. However, I think I should have used it more to make the game a bit more challenging. In hindsight, I’d be very clear that any action against a higher-quality (accounting for tier, group size, etc.) opponent would require a resistance roll first. This would increase the stress cost of these risky interactions and force the gang to pick on someone their own size more often or pay the price.
- Yes, I know PbtA games have broadened beyond the more “narrow” hacks of Apocalypse World and that the 2d6 dice system and other mechanical accouterment are not inherent to the approach. But, for this post, I’m thinking of the 1st generation of PbtA games I’m familiar with (Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Masks, etc.), which use a similar core system as Apocalypse World .
Here is a ritual and some magic items I used in the campaign. Apologies in advance if I stole any of this text from someone online; I think I might have, but I can’t find the source(s).
Ritual: Demonic Blood-Binding
This ritual captures and binds the essence of a demon to the caster’s blood, granting them demonic powers and permanently trapping the demon in their body. This ritual is very dangerous, involving arcane contact with a demonic power (desperate Attune roll). It requires two downtime actions, a fitting blood sacrifice emotionally or genetically close to the caster, and a square mile of water to cast. The caster takes 8 stress and ticks an 8-segment clock: “Call of the Sea.” On a successful roll, the demon is effectively neutralized and the caster can now take Veteran advances from the Ghost or Vampire playbooks.
Hand of Kotar
A shriveled, mummified hand. When pointed at a living being with a spirit, allows the wielder to banish the living to the Ghost Field indefinitely. On use, take +2 to all Attune rolls for an hour, but take a trauma.
Eye of Kotar
The left eye of Kotar, preserved by magical means in amber. It has a shriveled part of the optic nerve still attached. Weirdly it looks moist and can move independently. It can be worn on a chain or can replace a normal eye. On use, the user can see into the Ghost Field, including seeing far-off locations. Treat use as a Greater Success on a Gather Information roll. On use, add a 6-segment clock “Something looks back” and make a Fortune roll using 3 dice. Tick 0 segments for a critical result, 1 segment for a 6 result, 2 segments for a 4/5 result, and 3 segments for a 1-3 result.
Heart of Kotar
What appears to be a human heart cast in bronze. While the item is on your person, you can use it to resist fatal harm without taking stress, but you suffer a trauma with each use.
Header image: Detail from “The Pantomimes” by D.H. Friston in the January 6, 1872 Illustrated London News, showing Thespis by Gilbert and Sullivan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.